Fentanyl test strips can be purchased online for about a dollar each. The state even distributes them through its syringe exchange programs.
Experts say these tests can save lives and give people reassurance about what drugs they are using, as fentanyl is increasingly used to reduce other drugs like heroin or methamphetamine, or sold disguised as prescription drugs.
But Utah law designates these test strips — and other devices used to test drugs — as illegal drug paraphernalia, which could make it harder for state health officials to get tests into the hands of people who need them.
Utah is not alone. According to the American Medical Association, most states have similar laws. But Democratic state senator-elect Jen Plumb hopes to remove Utah from that list this term.
So far, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services has been distributing the strips through an agreement with law enforcement despite some so-called blurring in the law, said Heather Bush, the department’s HIV prevention manager.
She said an unused test strip isn’t considered a paraphernalia, but a used one might be. Bush said she would like to expand the state’s test strip distribution but needs more money and the legal gray area makes that difficult.
“The law change would just make it less blurry,” Bush said, “because we don’t want to promote anything that could be considered illegal.”
Plumb, who founded Utah Naloxone with her brother, said the law is clear the testing is illegal in Utah — and she wants to change that to save lives.
Utah Naloxone Hands Out Free Opioid Reversal Drugs Plus Fentanyl Test Strips, Plumb said, and while she’s not worried that she or her associates or state officials would be arrested for issuing those strips, she is concerned that police might use the law As a pretend to arrest others like their clients.
“I don’t think that’s okay,” Plumb said. “I think the law itself must be the same for everyone.”
The state law, last updated in 2011, states that “testing devices used or intended for use to identify or analyze the strength, potency, or purity of a controlled substance” are drug paraphernalia and that someone who uses — or possesses and intended to use – such test equipment is guilty of a Class B offence.
Anyone who supplies drug paraphernalia — or possesses with a view to supplying it — or anyone who manufactures it, is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, the law states.
Plumb’s proposal would declassify testing devices, particularly fentanyl test strips, as paraphernalia, which “would give people the ability to test substances to make sure they know if they have something very risky,” she said.
She also hopes to remove syringes from that list – a necessary change, she said, but “a hard lift”. Currently, people are afraid to return syringes through exchange programs because they don’t want to be charged with possessing paraphernalia.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office prosecutes Class A misdemeanors and felonies, said test strips “don’t quite fit the idea of what paraphernalia are.”
Gill said the Legislature has previously shown that “we don’t want people dying for reasons of public policy,” such as passing Good Samaritan laws that don’t penalize people who provide assistance or notify the police, after witnessing an overdose.
He said prosecutors must balance their desire for people not to use illegal drugs with the fact that fentanyl kills — and has become an increasingly deadly problem — when making prosecution decisions.
“I would much rather put myself on the lifesaving side,” he said, “than send a message that will result in loss of life.”
As of Thursday afternoon, the lawmakers’ website shows Plumb, who was elected in November, has yet to table a bill for the 2023 General Assembly. Gill said Plumb’s planned move to clarify that test strips are not paraphernalia made “good public policy sense”.
Test strips as harm reduction
Harm reduction is a core public health principle, Bush said. It’s wearing a mask or getting a vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19, or putting on sunscreen or a long-sleeved shirt to ward off skin cancer.
It does not condemn or condone behavior that could be harmful, bush said but instead offers options to reduce risk.
“It says, ‘We accept you where you are and we’re going to help you get well,'” Bush said.
The syringe exchange program is an example of the state’s harm reduction work. In 2020, after receiving funding from the Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the Department of Health began distributing fentanyl test strips through this program.
In 2021, as fentanyl-related deaths soared — and as authorities seized tens of thousands more pills than in previous years — state health officials called test strips “a cost-effective intervention to prevent fentanyl overdoses and encourage harm-reduction behaviors.”
The latest government data shows that from the start of the program through September 2021, providers distributed 15,438 fentanyl test strips to 5,901 people. Just a fraction of those people — 1,460 — answered a survey that tracked test results, drugs tested and other information.
It’s a small dataset, Bush said, but it provides valuable real-time information about drugs currently on the market. Previously, officials learned such information only after someone died.
Of those who took test strips and completed a survey, 83% tested their medication.
These people’s test strips found fentanyl almost 60% of the time. According to the data, the most frequently tested drugs were heroin and methamphetamine/speed.
About 70% of the participants declined to answer a later question about how (or if) the results changed the use of the drugs tested. Of those who responded, most indicated that they have naloxone in their area or have chosen to use it with someone else nearby.
The third-highest response, out of just over 100 people, said the results hadn’t changed their behavior.
How to use test strips – and where to find them
Mindy Vincent, chief executive of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, said fentanyl testing is helpful for opiate users to gauge how much they should be consuming, but it may be more beneficial for people who think they’re using a stimulant such as methamphetamine or cocaine and don’t have any Tolerance to opioids. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid.
She said vendors are increasingly seeing drugs cut with fentanyl, either as compressed pills or powder.
[Read more: Fentanyl has flooded into southern Utah, Washington Post reports]
To test a drug, you have to mix the substance — about 10 mg for stimulants like meth or MDMA, or about 50 mg for other drugs — with a tablespoon of water, said Elly Swedberg of the Harm Reduction Coalition.
Once you can use a cup, bottle cap or the pouch that the test came in and you will need something to stir the mixture.
Then they should dip the end of a test strip into the water for about 10 seconds. The results should appear in about a minute.
“It’s the opposite of a pregnancy test,” Swedberg said. “So two lines mean negative, one line means positive.”
Swedberg said pressed pills need to be crushed to be tested accurately. She compared a pill with fentanyl to a blueberry muffin. “There’s blueberries in there, but it’s not all,” she said.
Fentanyl test strips are available wherever vendors exchange syringes, Vincent said.
The Harm Reduction Coalition offers exchange service appointments Monday through its Midvale office and conducts mobile distribution Tuesday through Saturday. For more information on mobile deliveries, text 385-323-2217 for a carrier’s location.
For information about other providers, see the Utah Syringe Exchange Network website.
The test can also be purchased online at endoverdose.net, wisebatch.com, dancesafe.org, Detectachem.com/harmreduction, signifyanalytics.com, or amazon.com. Tests designed for urine can be used to test the drug before use, Swedberg said.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/12/30/fentanyl-test-strips-are-illegal/ Fentanyl test strips should be legal in Utah, says lawmaker Jen Plumb